"Simply put, it's a must-have for fans of the series, as well as for those who are looking to get into the franchise for the first time."
In Chinese folklore, there's the myth about the red string of fate. Similar to the largely Western concept of soulmates, it is said that people who are destined to meet each other are actually tied together with an invisible red cord by the gods. Regardless of circumstances, as long as the string is tied between people, they'll forever be connected and their fates intertwined. The red string of fate is a beautiful myth about bonds and relationships, which is the underlying thematic element of Final Fantasy XV.
However, as we all know, relationships are not as easy as we'd like them to be. There are ups and downs; for as many times that we are overjoyed, we are also heartbroken; for as many times that we are blinded by love, we are blinded by anger; for as many times as we feel comfortable with one another, we feel uneasy. Final Fantasy XV is aware of this, and makes sure that the relationships between its main cast isn't without conflict. This is great to begin with, but what makes it even better is the fact that these men, each their own masculine stereotype (the cool-headed leader, the know-it-all, the strong-but-silent, and the quip-spewing action hero), are allowed to both experience and express a wide range of emotions. What could have resulted in a testosterone-fueled road trip ends up becoming an emotional and engaging journey.
One of the main complaints of Final Fantasy XIII, the last non-MMO, numbered Final Fantasy game, was that the linear structure that eventually branched off into a wide open world was a bad design choice. Square obviously listened, as XV does the exact opposite: for its first eight chapters, you'll have access to a sprawling open world, filled with side quests and leisurely activities, before going onto a more linear path. Unfortunately, these side quests are usually repetitive in nature, and ultimately result in either being fetch quests or "kill x amount of monsters" missions.
Thankfully, even the side quests are fun because the combat is so enjoyable. Holding down the attack button to build up a gauge that unleashes techniques from your party members feels a bit mindless at first, but when you start throwing in the ability to target specific body parts of enemies while being mindful of dodging at just
the right time, it begins to err on the side of strategic. Another highlight of combat is Noctis' ability to warp to specific vantage points, only to then deliver a warp-strike to a faraway enemy. The decision to make combat completely action-oriented was a risk for a franchise rooted so deeply with traditional RPG battle systems, but it pays off tremendously; once I became adjusted to it and found a nice rhythm, I enjoyed the battles so much that it's now my favorite combat system in any non-traditional, action-RPG.
In a twist, your characters don't level up immediately after collecting the required number of experience points. Instead, characters must rest, either by making camp or booking a room in lodgings like a trailer. While camping offers you the ability to temporarily gain buffs through party member Ignis' cooking, staying at a lodge can increase your total number of experience points (motels, for example, offer a x3 bonus); you'll have to think carefully as to whether you'd rather have more experience points or gain a boost for your next battle.
Once your decision is made, all of the experience points you've gained since the last time you took a rest are tallied, which can result in drastic changes; it isn't uncommon for party members to gain 2-3 levels at a time. When you level up, the entire party gains an accumulation of what's known as AP — Ability Points. This ties into the game's Ascension Tree system, which functions similarly to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid. You'll spend your AP to unlock different nodes from a wide variety of categories, and each node is tied to either one specific character or the entire party (nodes for the latter are always highly expensive). Would you rather gain a technique for Ignis that allows him to regroup the party and heal them, a technique for Prompto that creates a gravitational pull to lump enemies together, or slowly bank your AP so you can afford to increase the strength of every party member? There's a lot of room for customization here, thus allowing you to level up characters in a manner that fits your playstyle.
One of my few gripes with the game is the first act of its narrative. When the game starts off, Noctis is heading off with his friends to see his betrothed, Lady Lunafreya, to perform an arranged marriage. I can't talk much about what follows, but the first four chapters just aren't very memorable, and you'll find the side quests to be much more engaging than the actual plot. Power through these chapters, though, because once the game hits the second act, the story really evolves into an exciting tale. There are some awe-inspiring set pieces and "did that really just happen?" moments, especially towards the end. And unlike XIII, the game forgoes confusing terminology and focuses on making the story as simple yet rooted in series traditions as possible, meaning you won't have to keep a notebook around to understand what's going on.
Graphically, the game is absolutely gorgeous. We haven't seen Final Fantasy character models look so real before, save for the CGI movies. Character animations are as wonderfully crafted as they are nuanced. For example, characters shiver after throwing a magic flask full of blizzard magic, and sometimes when riding in Noctis' car, the Regalia, Gladiolus might pull out a book and the top may roll down if rainy weather has cleared.
Speaking of the Regalia, the game was conceptualized to mimic a road trip, with the Regalia being your primary mode of transportation and essentially becoming a character itself. Unless your quest takes you to a previously visited location that you can fast travel to, you may spend anywhere between 1-10 minutes simply driving and watching the scenery pass you by. This is boring, especially since the Regalia moves at a predetermined pace and feels very on-rails, controlling like a slot car — Grand Theft Final Fantasy this ain't. Thankfully, you can purchase soundtracks to the previous Final Fantasy games and both of XV's prequels (the anime, Brotherhood, and the CGI movie, Kingsglaive) to help you pass the time. It's a small touch, but the inclusion of soundtracks of series' past coupled with XV's already beautiful score is a nice one.
Like most open world games, there are a few technical issues as well. It's possible to get caught on some geometry, especially shrubbery, and sometimes the attack animations don't land properly. Lip syncing can be out of whack at certain times, too. And then there are frustrating, head-scratching design choices, such as having the jump button also tied to the function to interact with the environment, often resulting in you leaping in the air rather than picking up that shiny on the ground. Still, these flaws aren't necessarily glaring — they don't halt down the gameplay and can most likely be fixed in a later patch.
This long-awaited fifteenth installment of the franchise synonymous with the RPG genre has notoriously been in development for the past decade, and even in spite of a few questionable design choices and a couple technical issues, I can say with great relief that it was worth the wait. A tale of friendship, love, and personal pilgrimage, Final Fantasy XV packs an emotional punch to the gut while also offering a very large amount of content. Simply put, it's a must-have for fans of the series, as well as for those who are looking to get into the franchise for the first time.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.